Facing FutureThere’s a good chance that recent Hawaiian music converts became so after being turned on by one artist and one unassuming song that’s been snaking across oceans and continents like slow-burning lava. Hawaiian vocalist and musician Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, or IZ as he’s called, died in 1997, but his version of Judy’s Garland’s Over the Rainbow, accompanied by the rhythmic strum of ‘ukulele—a soft, almost reggae beat—with a few lyrics from Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World sprinkled in and sung in his rich, haunting voice—lives on. The song first appeared nationally during the credits of the 1998 Hollywood film Meet Joe Black, and has been licensed more than 100 times since for use in movies, TV shows and commercials. Most surprising, it hit No. 1 on many European charts by the end of 2010, eight years after the album on which the song appeared, Facing Future, went gold in the United States in 2002, and five years after it hit platinum in 2005. Somehow this one-time American classic recast by a Hawaiian icon has helped crack open an avenue of interest leading directly to Hawaiian music—even though there’s little in the song that’s actually Hawaiian.
Learn more about Harry B at TerritorialAirwaves.com
“In spite of that, people are falling in love with [the song], and as a result, eventually finding their way to traditional Hawaiian music,” says Harry B. Soria Jr., who for 32 years has hosted the weekly Hawai‘i radio program Territorial Airwaves, which takes listeners on a musical stroll back to Hawai‘i’s time as a U.S. territory, pre-statehood in 1959. “There are big pockets of ‘ukulele fans and clubs all over the world, and slack key guitar CDs selling all over the world and slack key players everywhere. But Israel’s influence seems to be greater in terms of how many people he’s turning on to even think about Hawai‘i and its music.”
From its origins in ancient Hawaiian chant recounting genealogy and honoring royalty and ancestors, to contemporary musicians who are taking the ‘ukulele, slack key guitar and traditional Hawaiian language songs to the next level—and earning Grammy nominations in the process—Hawaiian music has excited and inspired generations of listeners inside and out of Hawai‘i for centuries.
There have certainly been Hawaiian music crazes before IZ, but not sparked by one artist and not since the early 20th century. The first event to ignite such interest was the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle, celebrating the 12th anniversary of the Klondike gold rush. The more than four-month-long fair opened in June on the University of Washington campus, and many of the 3 million attendees from North America, Europe and the Pacific Rim flocked to the then rather exotic Hawaiian Building, outfitted with gleaming native koa wood. Throughout each day, the music of the Islands sounded across the fairgrounds. “This was where people on the West Coast first saw the Hawaiian steel guitar,” notes Soria, referencing the only stringed instrument invented in Hawai‘i, attributed to Joseph Kekuku around 1889, by raising strings off guitar frets and playing it on the lap with a steel finger bar. For the next 10 years, Hawaiian artists toured and recorded on the mainland, riding the wave of what for everyone else was a “new” music phenomenon.
Just six years later, the U.S. mainland again enthusiastically embraced Hawaiian music, thanks to the more renowned and oft-referenced 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal. This elaborate, nearly 10-month-long fair exposed 30,000 people each day to Hawaiian steel guitar, ‘ukulele and hula in the Territory of Hawai‘i’s pavilion, sparking yet another Hawaiian music rage. When recordings found their way around the world and Hawaiian performers hit Europe and Asia, that recognition went global.
Memories Of Hawaii Calls Volume 1Arguably the last major resurrection of Hawaiian music popularity outside Hawai‘i sprung from the 1935 launch of the Hawai‘i Calls radio show, which broadcast live Hawaiian music, mainly from Waikiki’s Moana Hotel. Regular performers on this weekly half-hour show—which some have called an “audio postcard from paradise”—included well-known Hawaiian vocalists Alfred Apaka, Martin Denny and Ed Kenney singing hapa-haole music, Hawaiian music with English lyrics, which had grown in popularity since the turn of the century. The Academy Award-winning song Sweet Leilani, written by Henry Owens and featured in the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding, has come to typify the music of the time. On the air through 1975, during its height Hawai‘i Calls reached 450 stations in the U.S., Mexico, South America and the Pacific Rim, spreading Hawaiian music everywhere its radio waves traveled.
Of course, music was popular and meaningful in Hawai‘i long before expositions, movies and songs infiltrated the broader public. But what is today thought of as Hawaiian music—defined by such unique ornaments as the “jumping flea” strum of the Hawai‘i-perfected ‘ukulele; the prolonged, nostalgic ring of the Hawaiian-invented steel guitar; entrancing falsetto voices flaunting the ha‘i, rough vocal breaks like a car shifting gears as opposed to smooth operatic tones; and, especially today, the soulful finger work of kī hō‘alu or slack key guitar (acoustic guitar tuned ‘slack’)—wasn’t born until westerners arrived.
“Ancient Hawaiians didn’t have the range of instruments or musical styles they adapted later, in the 1800s, from foreign sources,” says DeSoto Brown, archivist at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum. “Hawaiians didn’t ‘sing’ in the sense that we do today. Instead, mele or chants were performed, in different styles.”
For instance, it wasn’t until Portuguese cabinet makers brought the ancestor of the ‘ukulele to Hawai‘i near the end of the Hawaiian Monarchy, and Mexican paniola, or cowboys, brought the acoustic guitar, that these instruments began to be adapted to ancient Hawaiian music traditions.
To offer an understanding of traditional Hawaiian instruments, Brown points to various drums—from large pahu to small puniu that can be played with one hand—hula implements, such as ‘ili‘ili, smooth stones clicked together in the hand; ipu, a large gourd beat with the hand and on the ground; ‘uli‘uli, small gourds filled with rattling objects; and other instruments like the nose flute, ‘ohe hano iho, and the three-stringed mouth harp, ukuke. All remain in use today in contemporary hula and chant, and current Hawaiian songs also include a vamp, or turnaround, and repeated refrains descended from the hula tradition.
The meaning and importance of Hawaiian chant is revealed in the lyrics, which were never just modes of entertainment. “As with most societies that did not have writing, they served as a cultural memory of important people, events and genealogy,” says Brown. “Chants were composed specifically to praise ali‘i or royalty. Thus, mele were of far greater importance in Hawaiian culture than most music is for us today.”
Learn more about Keola Beamer at http://www.kbeamer.com
One of Hawai‘i’s prominent current vocalists, Grammy-nominated slack key guitarist Keola Beamer, traces his family genealogy to the 13th century in Hawai‘i, and many of his family’s songs are about or written by honored kupuna, or ancestors. It’s not surprising that Beamer feels a tremendous historical and personal connection to Hawaiian music—a family tradition that stretches back past his siblings, including recording artist Kapono Beamer, and his mother, renowned songwriter, performer and hula teacher Nona Beamer.
“This connection—it’s not pretend. It’s very real, about real people, about real places, about things that happened. There’s a very strong component of meaning in the music and that’s what makes it important,” says Beamer, who also believes importance lives in Hawaiian music’s ambiance and rhythm. “There’s a different rhythm of life out here in Hawai‘i, and that rhythm kind of gets ingrained in your soul. And as a writer, this rhythm is part of your life experience and part of your work.”
Though its roots lie firmly in ancient tradition, Hawaiian music as recognized today was largely shaped in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the fires of what is now called the “Hawaiian Renaissance” were lit. Unfolding on the heels of a century that had seen a territorial government overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and succeed in nearly obliterating the Hawaiian language—so much so that from the 1930s through the 1960s, most Hawaiians couldn’t speak Hawaiian fluently and no Hawaiian-language songs had been written for decades—the renaissance created a shift. Hawaiians began to reclaim their identity, and many contemporary Hawaiian music icons, such as Gabby Pahinui, the Brothers Cazimero and Keola Beamer, came into their own.
“I came along at the right time, which came later to be defined as the renaissance of Hawaiian music,” says Beamer, who recently turned 60 years old. “There wasn’t a lot of pride in being Hawaiian when I was growing up, and the music helped shift that. All of a sudden young people began to take pride in the music and songs being sung, and that paradigm shifted. It became cool or good or positive to be Hawaiian.”
The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band Vol 1Previously admired hapa-haole music and the Hawaiian steel guitar faded as acoustic folk rock spread and many local groups began to imitate American pop music. Legendary performer Gabby Pahinui, who played slack key guitar, became a “flashpoint” as his style was accessible to young Hawaiians already familiar with the acoustic guitar.
Pahinui was the first to play the slack key guitar on stage, brought from its customary home in informal, backyard gatherings, which elevated the slack key style and, through recordings, spread its popularity. Gradually, local music groups began using slack key and ‘ukulele to create contemporary versions of traditional Hawaiian language songs, incorporating falsetto and rearranging them in the 70’s style since they couldn’t yet compose original lyrics in Hawaiian.
Soon, legal restrictions on Hawaiian language use in schools were removed, and Hawaiian was made an official state language, as it remains today. Resulting instruction in Hawai‘i universities and the birth of Hawaiian immersion pre- and K-12 schools have since bolstered the language, and today a second generation is coming of age learning institutionalized Hawaiian for the first time in Hawai‘i’s history, with exciting implications for Hawaiian music’s future.
“This is creating a generation of young entertainers who are fluent in Hawaiian language, who are writing Hawaiian poetry and new songs,” says Soria. “We have done a full flip, and we are looking at a period ahead where we have more fluent Hawaiian composers than we have had in generations.”
More of today’s artists are able to create original Hawaiian compositions, and at the same time, continue to look to the past for inspiration. This is one way Hawaiian music is both preserved and perpetuated, even by artists as young as 26-year-old Raiatea Helm, the niece of late falsetto singer and activist George Helm and known for singing in the falsetto ha‘i style. “The songs I do are from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and the most beautiful thing I learned when discovering traditional Hawaiian music and falling in love with it was the lyrics then were very simple,” says Helm. “I went back to that era, and try to recreate songs with my voice and different instruments so it sounds fresh.”
Soria calls Helm and other artists such as Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom, Hoku Zuttermeister, Aaron Sala and the group Holu Nape, “new traditionalists”—artists that perpetuate Hawaiian music’s traditional style and songs, only updated for this generation. Another example is the group Na Palapalai, who slows down old Hawaiian songs and injects what Soria calls “drama” into them, retaining a traditional sound yet performing them completely differently than ever before. These artists connect modern listeners with songs and musical styles that may have been composed more than 40 years ago, to which they may never have been exposed, ensuring that traditional Hawaiian music is freshly appreciated and carried into the future. In this way, the old sound of Hawaiian music remains current and relevant, and ancient roots are honored.
“It’s that old style of music that I cling on to. It’s that soul and spirit and that insight,” says Helm. “Hawaiian music is so rare and so precious. I try my best to honor my Hawaiian music and take great care of it. I try to respect the language and the people that wrote the song.”
There are other artists playing today, such as Jake Shimabukuro and Makana, that head in the opposite direction, producing original compositions and even classic rock songs or American-style rock music on ‘ukulele and slack key guitar, pushing the boundaries of what is considered Hawaiian music.
Though today there are fewer dedicated venues at which to hear Hawaiian music, with a little bit of research, Hawaiian artists and a vibrant musical atmosphere can indeed be found. Resorts can usually be counted on for lounge-style Hawaiian music played in hotel lobbies, bars and lu‘aus, though today it’s most likely to find top Hawaiian music at larger concert halls, small restaurants and bars, and even unexpected holes in the walls.
Another great option is the plethora of local festivals, where noted musicians often perform in an intimate setting. The 2nd annual Na Hoku o Hawai‘i Music Festival gathers many top Hawaiian performers (www.nahokufestival.com), and there are also festivals on major islands dedicated to the steel guitar, slack key guitar and ‘ukulele, as well as the falsetto style of singing.
“Most of these young artists must travel constantly because they cannot just stay in Hawai‘i and make a living,” says Soria. “They need to tour the neighbor islands, they need to tour the mainland, both west and east, and to really earn serious money they need to go to Japan.”
This makes Hawaiian music accessible outside Hawai‘i, but also means you want to make sure a favorite artist will be in town when you are, and seek out venues that support Hawaiian music, whenever you find them.
No one can say how Hawaiian music will develop and transform in the future, or just how a new generation of artists will shape and make it their own, but it seems everyone looks forward to that next new sound that will enrich Hawaiian music even further than IZ’s Over the Rainbow is doing now.
“At the end of the day, Hawaiian music remains unique and current and topical to each new generation,” says Soria. “We embrace it no matter how it changes. You can’t really say that about too many other types of music.”BY Christine Thomas
for Alaska Airlines Magazine May 2011